Friday, March 21, 2014

Interview with Carol Strickland

Yesterday I reviewed Carol Strickland's fantastic The Eagle and the Swan, a novel of 6th century Byzantium and the infamous Empress Theodora.  It was a wonderful novel full of personality and rich with historical detail.  I'm thrilled to share my interview with the author (who also penned a favorite book of mine on art), so read on to learn more about her, her books, and what she does when she isn't writing.  Be sure to enter the international giveaway, too!

What was the plot of your very first piece of fiction?

I took a creative writing class in college and wrote some short stories I’d charitably describe as “under-developed,” mainly because at the age of 21, I had little life experience to draw on. My very first piece of fiction was probably an assignment in junior high school to write a myth that would explain some natural phenomenon through supernatural intervention. I imagined a Poseidon-like god who was wrathful at humanity and flooded the land, determined not to recede until he had drowned someone.

I built up the fear as the raging waters approached, focusing on a husband and pregnant wife at risk. But—lo and behold—the flood waters engulfed a life-sized statue of Benjamin Franklin and the flood god, who must have been near-sighted or at least not paying close attention, was satisfied. The waters swept back to sea. This wasn’t enough of a happy ending for me. The wife (who had been prevented from running to higher ground by labor pains) gave birth to a son at that instant. Guess what they named him? Ben. I now prefer ambiguous endings to sappy ones.

Do you have any writing rituals or routines?

Basically, it’s plop down at my desk and write on the computer, consulting piles of notes that make my office look like the aftermath of a tickertape parade. Before writing my historical novel, I had to do a lot of research in primary and secondary sources on the late Roman/early Byzantine Empire. That part was fun. I admit I’m a scholar-nerd. Each tidbit beyond the facts of what happened, I’d file away in my mind as a means to bring the characters to life when telling their story. It’s amazing how gossipy the letters from Roman historians are, so I could “re-purpose” random details to describe ancient lifestyles. When I was “in the flow” of creating the characters and their trajectories, I didn’t want to stop for lunch or anything. My husband would come home for dinner and I’d still be typing away, oblivious to the passing of time. Then the long slog of revising began, honing down the text, finding the right word, making sure the characters had individual voices and traits. I consulted a lot of Latin dictionaries and consumed a lot of coffee. If I can’t start the day with the New York Times, I get really cranky.

Was The Eagle and the Swan the original title of your book?

Originally, I called it A Distant Dawn, more as a default than committed inspiration. I wanted it to evoke the past and a measure of hope on the horizon. Then I decided something that conjured up my heroine, Empress Theodora who started life as an exotic dancer (OK—a stripper), would be better. So I wanted to call it Something in the Way She Moved. That would evoke not only her sensuous prowess but her unprecedented rise from a low-caste actress to the most powerful woman of her time. I also liked the subtext of Theodora as a proto-feminist who helped women and children advance in terms of human rights. My publisher asked early readers to send in their ideas for a title. The Eagle and the Swan was the result, alluding to the imperial eagle (Justinian, the last Roman Emperor) and the dance that made Theodora infamous, her interpretation of the Leda and the Swan myth. We found a 6th-century mosaic illustrating the myth to use as the cover.

As you were writing The Eagle and the Swan, was there a particular scene or character that surprised you?

My narrator Fabianus is a scribe and childhood friend of Theodora from her courtesan days. Since he’s the only character I invented out of whole cloth, he’s the one I couldn’t predict. In the earliest draft, he was simply a device to tell the story of actual historical events. But as I progressed with fleshing out the characters beyond what the history books contain, Fabianus kept inserting himself and his views and desires. He’s torn between loyalty to his idolized Theodora and his mission to tell the truth, even if it’s not flattering. Fabianus became much more than a mouthpiece for her but a complex, conflicted individual seeking to present all perspectives. Filtered through his lens, the Golden Age of Byzantium looks more like a prismatic Gilded Age, multi-faceted and glowing, but with just a thin veneer of shine over base metal.

You've written non-fiction about art and architecture before The Eagle and the Swan. What inspired you to write a novel?

My books on art history and the history of architecture inspired my interest in the characters. In researching and writing about early Byzantine art, I was aware that Emperor Justinian was the force behind the design and reconstruction of one of the most stupendous monuments of Antiquity—the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople (now Istanbul). A mixture of engineer/philosopher/theologian/dictator, Justinian oversaw every detail of the innovative basilica that went far beyond the technical know-how of that period. I knew Theodora as the subject of one of the most glorious works of Byzantine art, a wall mosaic in the church of San Vitale in Ravenna, Italy. But when I read that contemporary historians referred to her as “Theodora from the brothel,” that intrigued me. I then read a Secret History written by their court historian Procopius, who obviously had a vendetta against his masters because he smears them with every conceivable calumny. How could these two people who’ve been immortalized in art and architecture—paragons of beauty—also be such demons? That was the spark that ignited my curiosity. And I have to admit, the more I learned, the more I wanted to set the record straight, to let Theodora speak for herself and not be defined for the ages by the misogynist Procopius.

When you’re not writing, what do you like to do?

I still do journalism, describing museum exhibitions and cities as cultural destinations, which keeps me current in what’s going on in the art world. I enjoy travel, in the States and international. I’ll soon be in Florence and Rome and look forward to reveling in the art and architecture of both cities. This summer I head off to France. I enjoy photography and adore classes in the Romance languages: French, Italian, and Spanish, which allow me to participate more fully in European cities I visit. And, of course, I love reading, cooking, and gardening, as well as going to the theater and movies. I also like the great long-form dramatic series on television like the costume drama Downton Abbey, or the gritty The Wire and Breaking Bad. Being able to develop characters over 12 episodes for a number of years has distinct advantages when the writing and acting are that good.

Read any good books recently?

I’m a fan of Barbara Kingsolver’s novels. I love how she can stir the pot with a gripping plot while making me think about ethical issues. She’s a real humanist, as in Flight Behavior, which explores family dilemmas as well as climate change. As an example of a superb historical novel, I love Robert Graves’s I, Claudius. One author I’d like to see rediscovered is Harriet Arnow, whose novel The Dollmaker seems particularly relevant now that Detroit has fallen on hard times. Or for a shattering immersion in rural entrapment, her Hunter’s Horn still tugs at your heart.

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My thanks to Ms. Strickland for her time and thoughtful responses. To learn more about her and her books, check out her website. You can also find her on Facebook and Twitter.


I'm thrilled to be able to offer TWO readers an e-book copy of The Eagle and the Swan. To enter, please fill out this brief form. Open to US and international readers, ends 4/11.


  1. Thank you for the interview and for the giveaway.

  2. I always love hearing about how a title came to be - but I find a lot of author's don't like to answer that question because it will give something away in the book. I like hearing the progression of the title. I wanted to get in on a review of this one after reading Thornton's book, but didn't have the availability - entered the giveaway tho!